Caribou Keepers

The Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations are helping pull local caribou populations back from the brink.

IT IS A CHILLY MARCH morning in 2020 in a remote mountain area of northeastern British Columbia’s Peace River Region. A caribou capture team boards a helicopter. Team members rush to batten the doors of the chopper as a mountain squall passes overhead and hammers them with snow pellets. It’s early spring, but the pregnant caribou won’t wait for better weather. The blades split the air as the machine rises. Radio collar signals from a few pregnant cows ping the transmitter.

Twenty minutes later, a team member locates the herd. The pilot banks left over a copse of subalpine fir trees, and a gunner leans out the window and fires a net over a sprinting caribou. The helicopter lands near her struggling form. The cow is blindfolded and mildly sedated. The team then slides her 120-pound body into a canvas bag, heaves her into the helicopter, and hooks her up to a gentle flow of oxygen. The chopper flies a dozen miles to a staging area, where a ground crew loads her still-groggy form onto a snowmobile sleigh and transports her the last few miles to an enclosed forested ridge that serves as a maternity pen. Over the next few days, this pregnant cow is joined by 11 other expectant woodland caribou, all captured in the same way. They’ll stay safely here until mid-August when their calves are around 12 weeks old.

The Dunne-za elders remember a time when a “sea of caribou” covered the land.

For the Indigenous caribou guardians, it’s the beginning of the annual labor that has filled their springs and summers since 2014, when the Saulteau and West Moberly (Dunne-za) First Nations launched an unprecedented penning program to protect and restore the critically endangered Klinse-Za (pronounced ‘Klin-sis-zaa’) herd of mountain caribou. In these maternity pens, the armed guardians will protect the caribou from predators as they give birth and rear their young. The new calves are the hope of the herd’s next generation.

The Dunne-za elders remember a time when a “sea of caribou” covered the land. For centuries, people in the Peace River Region, in the midst of the Rockies, relied on caribou for sustenance, manufactured items, art, regalia, medicine, song, and stories. But today, Canada’s iconic caribou stand at the precipice of extinction.

In the Peace Region, the herd count has dwindled from tens of thousands to just over 300 in the last century on account of industrial logging in old-growth forests, agriculture, hydro and wind energy projects, mining, oil and gas exploration, and beetle infestation. In 2014, the Klinse-Za herd — one of four remaining herds that make up the central population of southern mountain caribou — was down to 16 animals. But in just six years, the Saulteau First Nations and West Moberly First Nations have painstakingly brought the herd’s numbers up to 101, making conservation history in the process. That they have managed to pull this off at the epicenter of BC’s resource extraction economy, no less, and in the face of stiff opposition to their work, gives their success added significance.

“It’s meaningful work,” says Starr Gauthier, a Saulteau First Nation member who has worked as a caribou guardian since 2018. “Each and every time I see [the caribou] I feel the same enthusiasm as the first time. I am always in awe of their majestic nature. To coexist with such a vulnerable, important species is extremely humbling and fills me with hope for their survival. They are sacred and deserve protection.”

HISTORICALLY, WOODLAND CARIBOU (Rangifer tarandus), known as reindeer in Europe and Asia, lived throughout the fir and spruce forests of Alaska, Canada, and parts of the contiguous United States. (They were declared extinct in the Lower 48 in 2018.) Scientists believe these animals are descendants of a caribou herd that crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia before the Pleistocene epoch.

Each spring, the caribou guardians capture and transport pregnant cows by helicopter and then snowmobile to a maternity pen where they can give brith and rear their young without the threat of predators.

During the million-plus years of glaciation that followed, an ice sheet split the herd into two genetically distinct ecotypes, known as the northern group, which eats lichen growing on the ground in winter, and the southern group which eats the lichen growing on old-growth trees. A third group, the central group, to which the Klinse-Za herd belongs, formed 10,000 years ago when ice sheets melted, and the two distinct groups bred. This new group settled in the Rockies and adapted to the once-healthy mountain ecosystem, learning to eat lichen on both the ground and old-growth trees. (Another subspecies, Dawson’s caribou, lived on the Haida Gwaii archipelago along the British Columbia coast, but went extinct in the early 1900s because of habitat destruction and overhunting.)

But the last century brought change to the Peace Region that outpaced the caribou. Herd numbers first began declining in the early 1900s with the clearing of old-growth forests for logging and agriculture. Then, in 1968, they plunged even more drastically with the completion of WAC Bennett Dam, the seventh-largest earthen dam in the world. The dam’s 680-square-mile reservoir flooded ancient caribou migratory routes, isolating the region’s caribou from each other. Catherine Dokkie, a Dunne-za elder, recalls seeing caribou floating down the reservoir in the winter of 1969, attempting to follow submerged ancient routes to calving grounds. “They drown if they cross,” she says. “But where is the trail? They lost it. They don’t know where to go.” Populations dropped so much that the Dunne-za stopped hunting caribou.

At this crucial stage, one catastrophe — one avalanche or several predator events — and the herd disappears.

A maze of forest roads and “cutblocks” — an area of land where timber has been harvested — continue to make the region unfriendly to caribou. The roads act as wolf highways, leading predators to the high ridges of the caribou’s core winter habitat where they can pick off easy prey. Cutblocks also draw other prey species like deer, elk, and moose that, in turn, attract a new host of predators, which caribou in this area are unaccustomed to evading. The cutblocks are also sometimes developed for farming, conventional oil and gas production, and the fracking projects that have proliferated in the region in past years, creating even more obstacles for caribou to navigate.

“It’s obvious that habitat destruction is directly related to the decline in caribou,” Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson said in a press statement last year. Plus, caribou reproduce slowly. Females are pregnant with a single baby for eight long months, meaning that losses easily offset any gains the herd is likely to make in terms of bearing calves. At this crucial stage, one catastrophe — one avalanche or several predator events — and the herd disappears.

Guardians blindfold and sedate a pregnant cow before sliding her into a canvas bag for transport.

Although there’s no precise number, most conservative estimates suggest that the total number of woodland caribou throughout BC — the northern, central, and southern groups combined — dropped from 40,000 to about 15,000 animals over the last century. According to provincial biologists’ numbers, some woodland caribou herds declined 50 percent between 2005 and 2013. Others disappeared entirely.

IT IS STILL DARK when Gauthier and her partner Lucas Talving stir awake in a plywood shack in a forest clearing at 6,500 feet in the Hart mountain range. Opening the wood stove, Gauthier adds cardboard and some kindling and blows on the hot coals, igniting the embers. As the water warms for coffee and tea, the couple stretch and do yoga before adding layers for a day on the ridge keeping watch. They check their messages and learn that a biologist and a veterinarian from Wildlife Infometrics — a collective of wildlife and forestry professionals that co-manages the maternity pens with the First Nations — are on their way up to help with calving season. Beyond the cabin walls, the dawn chorus begins as the first color tints the sky.

Next to the shack, a 15-foot-high, black geotextile wall, surrounded by six strands of white electric fence, marks the barrier of the Klinse-Za maternity pen. This enclosure encompasses 37 acres of mostly subalpine fir, birch, and spruce forest with finger meadows, pockets of willows, and a creek running through it.

First Nations members like Starr Gauthier guard the enclosed forested ridge that serves as a caribou pen in two-week shifts, spending nights in a plywood cabin.

Talving patrols the exterior pen perimeter, looking for signs of predators and scrutinizing the fence for weaknesses. Grizzlies have been out of their dens for the past month or so and know the caribou will be calving soon. Meanwhile, Gauthier heads inside the pen. She fills the red troughs with nutrient-packed pellets consisting of barley, wheat, and corn. Then she climbs into the observation tower to monitor the cows’ behavior, using radio telemetry to locate each one. She notices two cows are missing from the group. Cows leave the herd for a day or two to be alone while giving birth, though they don’t usually try to escape or test the pen’s canvas walls. “Our data on stress hormones seem to confirm that caribou are less stressed inside the pen than they are outside,” Scott McNay, an ecologist and project manager with Wildlife Infometrics, tells me later.

Once the two Wildlife Infometrics staffers arrive, they join the guardians’ search for the two cows. Using telemetry, they locate both. One is in a small clearing and the other is hidden away in some thick trees. Both have given birth overnight. The crew approaches the mother in the trees, who runs off a hundred yards, circling and grunting while the crew sprints after the calf, captures it by hand, and fits it with a VHF radio collar. They observe the calf for about 15 minutes, ensuring the collar isn’t too tight, that it can walk without difficulty, and that it feeds when reunited with its mother. The crew repeats the process with the other calf.

The guardians meet back up outside the pen to tighten the fence against the wind, stitch together holes in the fencing where branches have poked through, and check the voltage of the electric fence. Then they grab the quad and strap a chainsaw to it and venture off to fell snags for firewood and do some building repairs and maintenance of the road that leads to the pen. For dinner, there’s moose meat and salad. Once the dishes have been done, they patrol the pen perimeter once again, then spend the evening journaling, reading, or beading before hitting bed by around 9 p.m. (The Wildlife Infometrics staff don’t usually stay overnight other than during the collaring and capturing season when they set up a wall tent a few kilometers down the road.)

“Being a caribou guardian has been the most fulfilling experience.”

It’s pretty much the same routine each day, but Gauthier, who formerly worked for oil and gas companies, says that “being a caribou guardian has been the most fulfilling experience.” The energy company job paid well, but she always felt conflicted about it. “We human beings have been exploiting resources at an exponential rate. Now it’s come to take these drastic and even experimental measures like this caribou maternity pen,” she says.First Nations in the region had been petitioning the BC and federal government for years to prioritize caribou conservation over resource extraction, to no avail. In 2012, after years of frustration with their inaction, the West Moberly First Nations took matters into their own hands and authored an “action recovery plan” for the caribou herds in the Peace Region. Together with its neighbor, the Saulteau First Nation, the tribe formed the nonprofit Caribou Conservation Society to handle the financial and administrative side of the maternity pen operation. The nonprofit hired McNay to review population data for the Klinse-Za herd. In 2014, after McNay concluded that the herd was on the brink of becoming locally extinct, the First Nations took it upon themselves to save it.

The Caribou Conservation Society incorporates three significant strategies: predator management, penning and guarding pregnant cows and new calves, and restoring habitat. While the BC government had tried maternity pens or culling wolves in other areas to save caribou with little success, no one had tried all three strategies at the same time before. So far, the three-pronged effort has worked.

Other volunteers like Pauline Walker help collect lichen to feed the cows and their babies.

Peace Region caribou have adapted to eat lichen that grow on the ground (pictured) and on old-growth trees. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

First Nation members guard the pens in two-week shifts, spending nights in the plywood cabin. In the course of the season, the guardians provide the caribou with more than 25,000 pounds of a terrestrial lichen, of the genus Cladonia, gathered by local school children and First Nation members, along with supplemental nutrient pellets that cost between CAN $80,000 and $100,000 each year. The team also sends out trappers to kill wolves in a plan that calls for culling up to 100 wolves a year. Predator reduction is controversial, but the team is committed to the tactic that has a long history of saving endangered species. “This is an emergency measure nobody wants to undertake, but difficult times call for difficult measures,” McNay says.

THE CENTRAL ISSUE of dwindling caribou populations, however, can’t be resolved in the long term by wolf culls and maternal penning. Eighty percent of the Klinse-Za territory has been disturbed by industry and wildfires, with 2,834 miles of logging roads and 289 miles of seismic lines (routes for gas and oil exploration) also fragmenting the landscape. Since 2017, the First Nations have decommissioned one mile of road and covered it with native plants, and excavated five other roads — 24 miles total. They have also planted approximately 40,500 subalpine fir and 60,000 Engelmann spruce seedlings, resulting in 66 percent fewer predators prowling the densified landscape since 2014.

The growth of the Klinse-Za herd, from 16 individuals in 2014 to around 100 today, is astonishing, but it’s not enough.

The growth of the Klinse-Za herd, from 16 individuals in 2014 to around 100 today, is astonishing, but it’s not enough. The West Moberly First Nations estimate that for their entire community of 300 people to sustainably harvest caribou once again, the herd number needs to reach 2,500 to 4,500 animals.

Funding has been one barrier to scaling up their effort. The current success has cost an estimated CAN $5 million so far for just maternity penning (which also requires often difficult-to-obtain Crown land permits) and wolf culling. Habitat restoration has cost an additional CAN $1 million or so per year.

At the outset, the First Nations approached the province to help fund the maternity pen initiative, which costs around CAN $650,000 annually. The province was initially supportive of the idea of First Nations taking on a “shepherding” role, but when the tribes applied for permits to erect the pen, the BC provincial government, especially, was considerably reluctant to allow the operation. According to Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations, both the federal and provincial governments were concerned that the project would spur invoking of Section 11 of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), which requires the federal environment minister to take action to protect critical habitat for endangered species, and in turn would mean curtailing all industrial development and recreational activity in the region. Section 11 would also enable the federal government to make decisions normally within the jurisdiction of the BC government, including whether or not to grant mining or logging permits.

In the end, 25 percent of the initial funding came from industrial and public sponsors, with most of that coming from oil, mining, and logging companies keen to boost their image. By 2017, the Caribou Conservation Society was CAN $750,000 in debt. In addition to these constraints, it can also be challenging to find enough caribou guardians willing to do the job. It pays well — but not as well as jobs in the resource extraction sector.

Today, though, at least the financial constraint has been resolved. In 2019, the then federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna declared that the southern mountain caribou faced “imminent threats” and that immediate intervention was required. The BC government was compelled to come up with a recovery plan to protect the six critically endangered herds in Treaty 8 traditional territory in BC’s northeast, including the Klinse-Za herd. In February 2020, the BC and Canadian governments formalized the plan and signed a historic partnership agreement with the First Nations to help recover northeastern BC’s woodland caribou population. The agreement commits to creating a new 206,000-hectare provincial park, the size of more than 700,000 sports stadiums, providing opportunities for First Nations to be active stewards of their lands, and furnishing tens of millions of dollars in funding.

Under this agreement, 70 percent of the Klinse-Za historic territory will be restored at an estimated cost of CAN $20 million. The BC government has also committed CAN $47 million over five years to support the Provincial Caribou Recovery Program. Of that funding, CAN $8.5 million will go toward the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund that aids provincial conservation efforts for fish and wildlife habitat. The Canadian government is adding CAN $10 million to this initiative that will go toward predator culling, maternity pens, supplemental feeding, habitat restoration management, and the Indigenous Guardians Program. All this has the potential to be a turning point for the Peace Region’s woodland caribou.

Not everyone is happy with the way funds are moving towards First Nations and caribou conservation. The day the agreement was signed, the BC Council of Forest Industries and the Forest Products Association of Canada issued a statement, saying, “We are deeply disappointed that the separate Partnership Agreement signed today permanently removes a significant amount of fiber from the timber harvesting land base and creates additional operational uncertainty.”

This statement followed claims from the CEO of West Fraser Mill that the company would have to close and lay off 700 people if the province signed the agreement, an outcome that didn’t materialize. The timber company Canfor threatened the same thing, even though the real hit to the industry is the dropping market price for wood products in recent years. Willson says that these statements are a type of industry-spun misinformation. “They diverted attention away from the fact that they mismanaged the resource and were looking at large forest cut reductions due to the pine beetle,” he says, referring to that pest and the spruce bud beetle infestations that were destroying trees in the region.

Backlash to the agreement has also led to a slew of racist abuse directed toward First Nations in the Peace Region by locals angered that the interests of the tribe were seemingly being put ahead of that of industries that employed them. “It’s hard for BC to promote business if they are shutting down areas for conservation purposes,” Willson admits. But the Dunne-za say resource extraction is short-term thinking: Conserving the forest will protect the province’s socioeconomic well-being long into the future, they say.

Willson also points out that Treaty 8 of 1899 — one of several early agreements between First Nations and Canadian settlers — “explicitly states ‘No forced interference’” with the First Nations’ way of life. Industry impacts on caribou, Willson says, are a clear violation of this treaty. “The treaty is a constitutionally protected agreement, so any violation of the treaty should be considered a violation of Canada’s constitution.”

“In saving the caribou, we are essentially saving ourselves and our culture.”

Treaty laws and intergovernmental agreements notwithstanding, protecting caribou, according to the people behind the Caribou Conservation Society, is about much more than just saving a species. Rather, it concerns saving the fabric of a place — and the human and nonhuman communities that inhabit it. Indeed, the new park, which includes old-growth boreal forests, will increase protected areas in the Peace Region to 6.7 percent of the landscape from 4.2 percent, and will help protect at least 36 other endangered and threatened species, including grizzly bears and fishers.

“The caribou and the Dunne-za people lived together since time immemorial,” says Willson. “The Dunne-za utilized every aspect of the caribou and their habitat. The caribou are a part of us. What happens to the caribou happens to us. In saving the caribou, we are essentially saving ourselves and our culture.”

LAST AUGUST, I DROVE up to the Klinse-Za maternity pen with Matt Erickson, a 25-year-old wildlife biologist who worked with Wildlife Infometrics at the time, to witness the release of the year’s batch of caribou cows and their calves into the wild.

Erickson grew up in Prince George, four hours southwest, but now lives in Mackenzie, a logging community and extractive resource hub that is often seen as at odds with those trying to save the forest’s endangered caribou. “I go to many of these town hall caribou recovery talks, and there is a lot of emotion and misinformation. I have a lot of common ground with these locals; I hunt, trap, snowmobile, and my uncle is a retired sawmill worker,” he says. “Most [of these] things can be done on the land if managed properly.” These days, he says, most locals support caribou recovery as long as it doesn’t threaten their livelihood or close off recreation areas.

Cows and their calves are released from the maternity pens in mid-August, when the calves are around 12 weeks old. Since the Dunne-za and Saulteau First Nations launched their penning program in 2014, the Klinse-Za herd has increased from 16 animals to just over a hundred.

We leave town paralleling the Peace River, then pull over at a security check station for the massive WAC Bennett Dam. After the gatekeeper jots down our names and details, and sensor checks the vehicle for explosives, we continue on over the top of the mile-long dam before hitting an active logging road. Every two kilometers, Erickson dutifully calls out our location over the truck’s radio to avoid colliding with oncoming logging trucks, numbering more than 100 per day. Truckers coming down the road call out the odd kilometers; we call the even.

As we drive the 60 miles up the Johnson Forest Service Road to the pen, I stare out the window beyond tall spruce trees lining the edge of barren-patched hillsides, to where clearcuts dominate the forests. The results make the hillsides look mangy, with clumps of standing forest divided by razed cutblocks.

At the maternity pen, Gauthier, rifle in hand, leads us southwest along the fence’s parameter to a high point. As the clouds part, we can see the distant mountains marking the far side of the newly proposed park. Gauthier checks a remote camera to ensure that no predators have been in the area the last few days.

Since the team is short-staffed, I help coil up the six-stranded electric fence and peel back a section of the black fabric, creating a gate to guide the caribou out. We move two red food troughs out of the pen, dump seven bags of lichen clumps into them, and disperse more clumps on the ground in order to lure out the caribou, who haven’t been fed since the night before. Then we all sit outside the pen in the shadows, under trees, waiting.

After two hours, two marbled gray and brown calves and one mother step through the temporary gate and pause behind the closest trough. An hour later, one more calf and cow emerge. It would take three days for the rest of the caribou to exit the pen, their ears twitching at every sound from the colorful meadow ahead of them.

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